Detroit Church to be converted into mosque


Milforum Chaplain
Kim Kozlowski / The Detroit News
DETROIT -- As a child, Mary Ann Rice considered Our Lady Help of Christians Church a second home.

A daughter of Polish immigrants, she attended its elementary school and worshipped there in Masses said in her native tongue.
After 83 years, the church will celebrate its final Mass on Sunday and become the first church in the Archdiocese of Detroit sold to a mosque. It will cater to a new crop of immigrants -- from Bangladesh, primarily.
"It's going to hurt," said Rice, 68. "There are a lot of memories there. But you've got to go with the times."
The Islamic Center of North Detroit has a purchase agreement with the Archdiocese of Detroit for Our Lady Help of Christians' five buildings, which tentatively are planned to be used for an Islamic community center, larger worship space and possibly a school.
The conversion of the Detroit buildings, on the Hamtramck border, from church to Muslim center underscores how much the community's makeup has changed. Long-entrenched Catholic churches have had to downsize as their congregations moved to the suburbs and other immigrant groups moved in.
Hamtramck and nearby Detroit neighborhoods flourished in the early 1900s when automotive jobs attracted Eastern European immigrants, primarily from Poland. The Poles brought their culture, foods and Catholic faith to Hamtramck and soon Polish-themed restaurants, markets and churches sprung up in the area.
But in a trend familiar to immigrants in scores of other neighborhoods across the country, the Poles eventually started moving to the suburbs, especially to Sterling Heights and Warren.
Urban Catholic parishes suffered as onetime parishioners built up faith communities closer to their new homes. A priest shortage has prompted Catholic Archdioceses locally and around the nation to have one priest serve several churches, merge congregations or close churches. Scores of churches in the Archdiocese of Detroit already have experienced this change.
On Sunday, Our Lady Help of Christians parishioners will say farewell to the church that hosted weddings and funerals for generations.
They'll also lament the loss of a close-knit community that has shrunk to 134 families, a small fraction of the congregation in its heyday. The congregation will merge with nearby Transfiguration Church, another Polish Catholic community. When that happens, the Catholic relics will go to other local parishes and a new church in Poland.
The pending sale of the building to a mosque is a first for the Archdiocese of Detroit, though it has already leased one of its properties to Muslims. Officials declined to say where.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood has evolved from a predominantly Polish one to a neighborhood with many immigrants hailing from Bangladesh, a mostly Muslim nation near India, and India.
Census data shows the neighborhood's Asian population exploded from 249 people with Asian ancestry in 1990 to 421 Bangladeshi and 530 Indian residents in 2000. In contrast, the Polish population slid from 878 to 394 in the same period.
Among the new residents is Mohammed Moshon, who is from Bangladesh. He is looking forward to the expansion of his mosque, where upward of 300 parishioners attend Friday prayers. He's especially glad there might be a school that could be an alternative to Detroit Public Schools for his two sons and daughter.
"It's going to be good for the neighborhood," said Moshon, "because (the mosque) is going to take care of the community."
John Gorman, who has lived across the street from the Catholic complex for 13 years, is glad the buildings vacated by the Catholics won't stand empty.
"We've got enough abandoned buildings in the world," said Gorman, who is not a member of the church or mosque. "We don't need any more."
Gorman has watched his neighborhood change over the years and says the Bangladeshis are nice, quiet neighbors who have brought the laughter of children back to the aging neighborhood. But not everyone is pleased.
Watching the mosque take down the crosses, Polish icons and other Catholic symbols is going to be difficult for Bart Nowak.
"They are going to destroy the place," said Nowak, who moved to the neighborhood from Poland with his parents in 1999.
Nowak is angry with the church for abandoning a community that many people characterized as an extended family.
"It's not a happy story," Nowak said.
The businesses along Joseph Campau, Hamtramck's main commercial drag, are testimony to the wave of new immigrants in the community. Though many Polish markets and restaurants still dot the corridor, businesses that cater to Bangladeshi, Lebanese and Bosnian immigrants are established in the area.
As sad as it may be for some people, Our Lady Help of Christians' neighborhood is no longer dominated by Polish Catholics so it makes sense for the Islamic community to move in, said the Rev. Andrew Wesley.
"This whole neighborhood is Islamic," said Wesley, pastor of Transfiguration and St. Ladislaus, another Polish parish. "This will fit right in."